By Sally Muylders
Back in July The Arts Council announced its investment plan for 2015-2018 and within that announcement it became clear that the English National Opera was the highest profile loser as its grant was slashed a third to £12.4 million from £17.2 million. This is a grant that the ENO use “to develop new audiences for opera through English Language performances which are affordable and accessible to everyone, alongside providing access and pathways for British singers and artists”.
Access to high quality arts is very important for all and especially those living in the neighbourhoods that we at Community Links operate in throughout east London, – though I doubt that even if a performance which is “affordable” is within the reach of many of the families that use our free open access play provision or the raft of other free opportunities taking place in our Neighbourhood Hubs.
It got me thinking about how I could spend a grant of £12.4million and achieve similar aims.
With such a large amount of funding I would want to reach the greatest number of people possible, therefore dividing the grant amount by the 326 boroughs that make up all the districts in England, gives each borough a total of £38,036.So the equivalent of one post with employers costs factored in and a very small amount of project costs.
What single post could be funded in every single council and district up and down the land that would have the a big impact in bringing people together and like the English National Opera provide new experiences and opportunities for a diverse group of people?
It’s a challenge to say the least but I have an idea.
What if every council had within its staff a Play Street Activator? A person that could be responsible for promoting the concept of play streets, spreading the idea among communities on a local level, working with groups of people who want to come together and start a regular community activity in their neighbourhood, a play street in their road.
This person could help local people to navigate the bureaucracy of local authorities to make it happen (it already happens in many areas, so is possible it there is will) The Play Street Activator could provide support to local groups to get their own community-led play street off the ground and ultimately contributing to developing community resilience.
Play streets are not a new concept, in fact in 1938 legislation was enacted in parliament to allow for them and they became a regular part of urban life, reaching a peak in the 1950’s with over 700 taking place in England and Wales.
But sadly by the 1980’s and the growing domination of cars on our roads and streets they had almost completely died out.
In more recent times, communities have been taking parties to the streets more and more with Royal celebrations and small grants packages such as the London Borough of Newham’s, Lets Get the Party Started supporting such activity, to a point in 2013, following valuable work from London Play – the Government recognises the benefits of play streets on outcomes such as health.
But the outcomes achieved by play streets are much broader than just health, activated streets, safer streets with people outside, engaging with each other and getting to know their neighbours all contributes to community cohesion as neighbours work together to make the event happen and deliver it on the day.
Children are provided with space that they can explore , create, imagine and perform in, which for maybe the first time is super local to their own house and free, helping those on low incomes and completely accessible to all, some play street activity might even provide intergenerational opportunities. The other massive bonus of play streets is that they require very little financial resource and can be entirely sustainable with the will of the organisers and the local authority.
Investing in a play street activator might pay dividends in terms of outcomes, locally community members will be more connected, more able to come together to support each other and with networks, that all contributes to the idyll of the “myth of the golden age” where everyone left their street door open, children played on the pavements and mothers sat on doorstep shelling peas chatting to each other but ultimately keeping an eye on all the children and the neighbourhood itself.
Streets being thought of solely as routes for cars has been a recent construction, in 2007 a playday poll found that 71% of adults surveyed played in the street or neighbourhood as children compared to only 21% of current kids.
If we are not careful the idea that of the street as a playspace could be lost within a generation.
So if the £12.4 million paid for a Play Street activator post in each district, this one post could ensure that a millions of children in this country could begin to use the space outside their house as a playground and the children living around them new playmates. This one post could have a lasting positive impact on neighbourhoods nationwide as people come together, make something happen and teach children that living in a community is special; important and possible.
As stated earlier investing in the arts is important, as is Opera in English to make the arts accessible but what better than an activator in every community to help children reclaim the streets one afternoon a month led by their parents. A catalyst to help children reclaim a childhood with a level of independence and exploration, some of which might lead to an interest in performing – especially if the two became more closely aligned – a marriage between the arts council and a newly formed play council for the uk would be an ideal.